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Carpenters – Live at Budokan, December 11th, 1974, Reviewed

Last year I became acquainted with the great Randy Edelman, the 70s songwriter who evolved into a movie scores composer, he was also close to The Carpenters. I wrote this a year ago (here): “The first time Randy performed in a theatre instead of a club he had just dropped his eponymous debut album and was booked to support The Carpenters (they would cover him as well) in huge arenas, and Karen Carpenter would wait at the side of the stage for him and tell him how much she enjoyed his set, “I’m going to cover every song” she said. Randy choked up before performing “You”. Honestly, I’m with Edelman on this one: I adored Karen, she was truly one of a kind.” She truly was, I was a huge fan though it took the Singles 1969 – 1973 to wake me up, it remains a straight up masterpiece and a good place to start except for Greatest Hits.

But there was nowhere left to go, the albums went from great to not great and then she ran out of time to put it right. Karen was 32 years old when she died of a heart attack brought on by anorexia nervosa. So I never got to see her on stage but I would have loved to.

This is the next best thing. The graveyard for so many bands, the Budoken (where Dylan came a cropper), was where The Carpenters performed in 1974 -nearly exactly nine years before we lost her. The set was too short (the medleys were unnecessary -play the entire songs) and at less than 50 minutes had you wondering why they brought so many Japanese fans together and not play for 90 minutes – 120 minutes.

But it doesn’t really matter, Karen with her three-octave contralto vocals, can dig deep and also, she just has a lovely, lovely voice: there is something both strong and completely tremulous though not in sound. She is the girl whose heart you broke, never better than on the heartaches “Superstar”, “Rainy Days And Mondays” and “Goodbye To Love” to name just three, and which the siblings used to OPEN THE CONCERT. “Superstar”, the Leon Russell song of psychosis and need and while it is scary in many ways when Karen, so small and fragile in the middle of the Budoken (when she gets behind her drums you can’t see her at all), you want to protect her from all the heartbreaks. She is just sad, not weak, her illness hadn’t taken over, her voice was a strong drag on your heart: there was that about her voice that, perhaps with the aid of hindsight, suggests tragedy: her voice was deep (though her range was amazing) and while she was too compleat the singer to let us hear her voice crack you just know it is cracking anyway; you can’t help but expect a crack when she’s singing “loneliness is such a sad affair”…

Karen and her brother Richard were middle class Americans, they looked and sounded Midwest but they were born in Connecticut and moved when she was thirteen to Los Angeles. Richard is a talented musician and the Carpenters arrangements are central to their mystique, but he doesn’t have that great kindness you can see in Karen, a conservative, consummate singer and drummer and the sort of girl the world wanted to know. At Budokan, the only vaguely surprising thing about her is her bell-bottoms with a large Raggedy Ann (Karen’s middle name is Anne) sewn on the front leg of her jeans, and her thick luxurious hair. In one of the gentle moments she invites a Japanese children’s choir to sing “Sing” and the gentleness permeates the performance. But that’s it for complaints, no CTV of course, only distance, difficult to see the siblings or their soft rock band lead by Richard’s piano, but that was what it was.

It is really sad seeing Karen so young, so close to the finish line yet healthy and loving; watching her with the children’s choir, her love of her children is obvious and really, her husband’s refusal to have children lead directly to her divorce and early passing. Karen was mainstream, her best friends in the business were Dionne Warwick and Olivia Newton-John, she performed MOR and because of exquisite taste in material, that voice, and her brother’s arrangements, she was instantly more than that. She drew you in, it was adult pop that crossed generation passes and seemed settled into a deep and deeply romantic melancholy. It is worth noting the Beatles covers, “Ticket To Ride” and a rare misjudged “Help”, are both sad songs and don’t change the tone of the concerts.

It isn’t till the end of the evening, a fifteen minute run from “Sing” (Karen sings a verse in Japanese) to “Sometimes” to “We’ve Only Just Begun” to “For All We Know” (if you have never seen “Lovers And Other Strangers” you are officially a jerk), that the clouds disperse as much as they can though there is something about Karen, she has a restraint in her happiness and an immersion in her sorrow, she can’t help herself:

Love, look at the two of us
Strangers in many ways
We’ve got a lifetime to share
So much to say and as we go from day to day
I’ll feel you close to me
But time alone will tell
Let’s take a lifetime to say
I knew you well
For only time will tell us so
And love may grow for all we know

For all we know, The Carpenters were the greatest soft rock duo ever.

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